White House officials insisted Tuesday that President Joe Biden does not consider China’s President Xi Jinping a “friend” after Xi, speaking through an interpreter in a virtual meeting with Biden Monday night, referred to his American counterpart as “my old friend.”
“Thank you,” Biden responded at the time.
Asked what Xi was getting at — and if Xi was trying to undermine the U.S. — White House deputy press secretary Andrew Bates didn’t answer directly, but reiterated that Biden doesn’t see Xi as an “old friend.”
“I’m not going to speak for President Xi,” Bates told a reporter on Air Force One as Biden headed to New Hampshire.
“But like you just mentioned,” Bates continued, “you’ve heard explicitly from the president himself, that he has a longstanding relationship with President Xi. They’ve spent a great deal of time together. They are able to have candid discussions, be direct with each other, which helps them be productive. But he does not consider President Xi an old friend.”
White House press secretary Jen Psaki on Monday said the same ahead of the leaders’ meeting when asked how Biden views the relationship.
“He still does not consider him an ‘old friend,’ so that remains consistent,” she said.
“President Xi is somebody he has spent time with, he’s had face-to-face conversations with. And because of that, the president feels that he’s able to have candid discussions with President Xi,” she added.
Biden on Tuesday in New Hampshire called it a “good meeting” with “a lot to follow up on.”
“We set up four groups, and we’re gonna get our folks together on a whole range of issues. I’ll have more to report for you in the next two weeks,” he told reporters.
Biden has often spoken of his long-term relationship with Xi and the time they spent together in person when they were both served as vice presidents.
But this June, Biden made clear he didn’t think of Xi as an “old friend,” saying in response to a question at a news conference in Geneva: “Let’s get something straight. We know each other well; we’re not old friends. It’s just pure business.”
Experts have tried to interpret Xi’s use of the phrase — whether it was genuine goodwill or meant to gain control of the narrative over Biden.
Wang Huiyao, president of the Center for China and Globalization, told Reuters Xi’s use of the phrase is a show of genuine goodwill, while Shi Yinhong, professor of international relations at Renmin University of China, told the news outlet “an ‘old friend’ doesn’t necessarily mean he is still a real friend.”
The two world leaders spoke for about three and a half hours via videoconference on Monday evening, amid continued tensions between Washington and Beijing over trade issues, climate change and human rights and in the wake of China recently upping its military pressure on Taiwan.
In a readout of the call, the Chinese government blamed the Tsai government for increased tensions between the U.S. and China for Taiwan’s attempt to “rely on the United States for independence” with Xi likening independence talk to “playing with fire” — in an apparent warning to both nations.
Xi said that Beijing is patient over reunification with Taiwan but independence is a red line they will take “decisive measures” on.
Biden, asked Tuesday in New Hampshire if the leaders made “progress on Taiwan,” said they had.
“Yes,” Biden answered. “We have made very clear, we support the Taiwan Act, and that’s it. It’s independent, makes its own decisions.”
The fact that he called Taiwan “independent” was certain to upset China and Biden spoke a second time to reporters traveling with him in New Hampshire to clarify his earlier comments.
“We’re not going to change our policy at all,” he said, referring to U.S. policy on Taiwan.
Asked about his remark about “independence,” he replied: “No, no, I said that they have to decide – they, Taiwan, not us,” adding, “And we are not encouraging independence. We’re encouraging that they do exactly what the Taiwan Act requires. That’s what we’re doing. Let them make up their mind. Period.”
Taiwan’s Cabinet-level Mainland Affairs Council issued a statement after the Biden-Xi meeting, saying it “insists that China has no say in the fate of Taiwan.”
While the meeting did not establish any specific new guardrails over Taiwan, the White House said the meeting itself was intended to allow the two leaders discussing ways to manage competition between one another and characterized the conversations as “respectful and straightforward and open.”
“The sense of US-China relationship having up and downs is the old model of how to think about the relationship between the US and China. We sort of think of this as a steady state,” a readout from the White House said. “The President has been quite clear that he will engage in that stiff competition.”
Xi, on the call, compared China and the U.S. to two giant ships sailing in the sea that must stabilize to move forward together and prevent a collision, according to a readout of the meeting from the Chinese government.
Psaki said Friday that Biden may have the chance to talk more about the phone call on Thursday when he hosts leaders of Canada and Mexico for a North American summit at the White House.
Monday’s meeting marked the third time the two leaders will have spoken since Biden took office.
ABC News’ Karson Yiu contributed to this report.